Notes from plane seats and the odd airport lounge part ii / Back in wintery Tasmania


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Europe » Bulgaria » Sofia City » Sofia
June 28th 2018
Published: October 11th 2018
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HE SAID...
Today we were travelling from Sofia (Bulgaria) to Hobart (Australia).

We woke early to an overcast and rainy day in Sofia, which reflected the weather we would meet at our destination – we were heading home to a cold and wet winter in Hobart. We had a small and simple breakfast (muesli, yoghurt, croissants, jam and tea) in preparation for our long haul flight, because we knew there would be ample food on the planes. All up, given taxi and car travel to and from airports, and stops in Doha and Melbourne, we were preparing for a 30+ hour journey from our hotel in Sofia to our home in Tasmania.

We relaxed in our room until mid-morning, then checked out of our very comfortable hotel, jumped into a taxi and headed to the airport. Despite the heavy traffic it was a reasonably short trip, and before we knew it we were lined up at the check-in counter. The airport was almost empty, so our passage through passport control and security was quick and event-free. We used the last of our lev towards a necklace for Ren, then settled at the gate lounge and took advantage of the free Wi-Fi.

There were very few people in the gate lounge, and when we boarded the flight there were spare seats everywhere, so we each managed to get a row of three seats to ourselves – bonus! It was a five hour flight, so we couldn’t have been more comfortable. We spread out over our six seats and settled in. Because of the inclement weather, we weren’t able to capture many photographs of Sofia from the air, but we did manage to get a few shots around the airport before we boarded.

I chose the cheese ravioli in pepper sauce for lunch, while Ren went for the braised beef in green peppercorn sauce. The food was good and the wine was amazing. After drinking beer in Eastern Europe for the last three weeks, it was great to enjoy a good shiraz. We lunched over Istanbul, and the view of the Black Sea from the window of the plane was an incredible backdrop to an enjoyable meal.

I used the space and comfort of three free plane seats to catch up on my travel writing. As I typed, I looked out the window at the enormous Lake Van, Turkey’s largest lake, with the snow-capped Mt Suphan in the distance. We flew close to the Iraqi border, and I marvelled at Iran’s mountainous and rugged terrain. We arrived in Qatar in the early evening, and the outside temperature was hovering around 37 degrees. The colossal Hamad International Airport was much busier than when we’d transferred through three weeks earlier, but it still seemed to be overstaffed and underperforming.

We were herded into a holding room well before boarding, which unfortunately had no toilets or power points to charge our appliances. We could have stayed in the main terminal until the last minute, but it was easier to follow crowds when an airport official asked us to move. The holding room was bursting at the seams, so there was little chance of scoring three free seats each again. The best we could hope for was a spare seat between us, but the chances of that happening were getting slimmer by the minute.

It didn’t happen. The flight was packed, so we didn’t manage a spare seat. However, the plane was comfortable and had more leg and arm room than most, so we could relax. Our first meal was a long time coming – a full movie length, in fact. I decided to wait until dinner before starting my travel writing, and Ren watched Black Panther from start to finish in that time. I watched Red Sparrow, The Vanishing of Sidney Hall, A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther – all on different screens, and all without audio. It’s something I’ve always loved when flying – watching a number of movies simultaneously on other people’s screens without any dialogue, and all the while trying to make sense of what is happening. By the time dinner was served, I’d watched four movies and hadn’t even opened my laptop.

The dinner service was good. I opted for the slow cooked lamb in apricot sauce, while Ren went for the sweet chilli braised chicken. After a few red wines and a cognac, I was ready to write. The cabin lights dimmed, the second round of movies started and people began to snore. It was midnight. As I opened my laptop, I realised I was too tired to think. It was time to sleep. My Epilogue would have to wait.

It’s difficult to sleep on a 14 hour flight when the plane is packed, especially with kids arguing behind you. However, we weren’t expecting someone to start screaming hysterically two rows in front of us. At first we couldn’t work out if it was a child or an adult, but we eventually realised it was a young girl with an intellectual disability. When things didn’t go as planned, she screamed at the top of her lungs and thumped the in-flight entertainment screen with her fists. I felt sorry for the person in front of her. She was about 12 or 13, and the cabin crew were fantastic in the way they dealt with her. We just hoped the rest of the flight would work out alright for her – which of course it didn’t. As a result, there were a few more hysterical outbursts and screen punching to wake us out of our fitful sleep.

The flight crew were excellent, although they weren’t around all that much. The plane was new and comfortable, the in-flight entertainment was excellent and each passenger was allocated 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi in the air. In terms of a long-haul flight, you can’t really ask for more.

We counted down the hours as we approached Melbourne. Something in the cabin was irritating my nose and eyes, so I was sniffling and sneezing for the last six hours of the flight. When I checked the weather on the in-flight entertainment screen, I discovered that some of Australia’s south eastern states were experiencing one of their coldest winters in 25 years. I’d set the fire in our lounge room before we left, and I made a mental note to light it as soon as we arrived home.

I know I shouldn’t pry on other people’s movies, but I just can’t commit to a movie with audio. Strangely – and this has never happened on any of my flights – two people in front of me watched the same movie twice during the flight. The guy over the aisle watched Red Sparrow twice (after watching Pitch Perfect 3 in between), and the women in front of Ren watched A Wrinkle in Time twice. Although in fairness to her, she snored through the first screening, thanks in part to a very large Baileys her partner had smuggled from the galley. 😊

We were exhausted when we touched down in Melbourne. As we slowly emerged from customs, we discovered a number of flights had been delayed due to fog, and the sight that greeted us when we entered the domestic terminal left us speechless – the longest queue imaginable! All we needed to do was drop our packs for the final leg of our journey to Hobart, but it looked like we’d be trapped in this queue for hours. To make matters worse, a talkative and loopy woman in front of us decided to share her life story – in detail. And not surprisingly, she had a solution to every problem facing the world. Why us? Why now? 😱

We eventually managed to drop our packs and make our way through security, but our gate lounge kept changing and flights kept getting cancelled. There was a significant chance our flight to Hobart would be among those being scratched, so we started planning scenarios for an unexpected night in Melbourne. As more and more flights were cancelled, tensions within the gate lounge escalated, and the tell-tale signs of biff began to emerge. One guy in particular wasn’t coping with the situation, and his knee-jerk response was to yell at the counter staff – as if it was their fault. What did he think he’d achieve? Did it make him feel more in control of an uncontrollable situation? Would he react like this at home, or at work? More than likely. I pitied his family and friends. Other passengers then turned on him, telling him to calm down, so he stormed off and called someone on his mobile, asking them (loudly) what he should do. His inability to cope was astounding, especially when hundreds of people around him were all in the exact same situation. Some were laughing, some were making alternative plans, some were listening intently to announcements… others were just staring into the distance.

Our flight wasn’t cancelled, but it was delayed for an hour. Given the gravity of the situation, and the debilitating weariness we were both feeling, it was sheer relief when our plane finally sped down the runway and ascended into the night sky over Melbourne.

It was freezing when we disembarked the plane at Hobart Airport. We picked up some snacks from a 24 hour service station and then headed home, arriving to a very dark and very cold house at around 1:30am. We’d been travelling for 33 hours door-to-door, so we were tired and weary. Having turned the power on and started the fire, we set about unpacking and washing clothes, all the while waiting for our hot water cylinder to heat enough water for a shower – a process that normally takes around four hours. We just couldn’t wait that long, so we washed in lukewarm water and collapsed into bed at 4:30am.

With barely three hours sleep, we crawled out of bed at 7:30am. We had to pick up Jasper and Oliver (the kelpies) from their holiday kennels, then drive into Hobart to pick up Mia (the cat). After a quick grocery shop and a refreshing chai tea, we picked up Mia from the cattery and headed home. We spent the rest of the day organising notes, sorting emails and cleaning the house. We were all home, happy and warm, and the kelpies slept in their beanbags in front of the fire for the entire afternoon. 😊



SHE SAID...
After the false start the day before, our trip through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria had unquestionably come to an end now. And as a result of our ‘unexpected’ day of relaxation, we woke feeling rested and refreshed. We’d only been travelling for 25 days, and I felt I could easily have travelled for another week or so. However, I was more than ready to see the cute faces of Jasper, Oliver and Mia again – I’d missed them so much. 😊

The Sofia Airport was only 30 minutes from our hotel, so we took it easy that morning and calmly prepared for our long flight home before enjoying our last leisurely breakfast. The croissants at our hotel were delicious, so I had been stuffing my face with them every morning. 😄

We proceeded through Sofia Airport very quickly, despite being singled out for a ‘random’ additional security check by check-in staff. The airport was quite small and we had lots of time to look at the handful of shops in the departure terminal. I like to buy a piece of jewellery from each country I visit, but the majority of jewellery I’d seen on this trip had been flashy, old fashioned or cast in yellow gold. As a result, I was very happy to find a shop in the airport that sold some contemporary handmade jewellery by a local designer. I bought a lovely necklace with a silver and black crystal pendant.

Our five hour flight from Sofia to Doha was quite empty, so we were happily able to stretch out on three seats each! The service was fantastic and my meal of braised beef in green peppercorn sauce with potato gratin was delicious. However, after nearly four weeks of a diet rich in meat, potatoes and cheese, I’m very much looking forward to a lighter vegetarian or even vegan diet when we get home!

We had four hours of transit time until our 9pm flight from Doha’s Hamad Airport. We found our gate and settled into some comfy seats with power points to check emails and do some writing. However, our comfort was short-lived… they pre-boarded us an hour and a half before our flight, and held us in a crowded lounge with no toilets or access to drinking water. I really hadn’t warmed to Doha Airport on this trip, and we’ll definitely think twice before transiting through it again.

It looked like our flight was going to be full of about thirty small overtired children and quite a few smelly adults. To while away the time, we people-watched and played that uneasy game of ‘I bet that person is going to be sitting next to us’. Ah, the joys of long haul travel 😊

The flight to Melbourne was full, but it was by far the best of the four Qatar flights we’d caught on this trip. The newer plane with more room helped a lot! Of the swarm of small children in the lounge, we only had about six in our section, with four belonging to one family – and it was total chaos from the start. When the mother tried to calm one child down before take-off, he yelled ‘I don’t give a shit!’… and that just about set the tone for the rest of the nearly 14 hour flight with them. Less than an hour into the flight, the whole plane knew Ashton and Isaiah, given their parents yelled their names out in frustration every few minutes. With such loud and frenzied parents, it really wasn’t surprising their kids had never learned the concept of an ‘inside voice’.

I’ve found that I sleep better on flights if I minimise my screen time, so I don’t tend to watch films on planes anymore. However, given the yelling and screaming, I decided a light and fluffy film was in order. I watched Black Panther, and I was genuinely surprised at how much I thoroughly loved and enjoyed it. I really want to watch it again, but this time without the backing track of young boys fighting five seats behind me.

Despite the odds, we both miraculously managed about four hours of solid sleep… until a young teenager (who we strongly suspect was on the autism spectrum) had a major meltdown because she spilt her drink. It woke up the whole section of our plane, and once people turned on lights and started moving about, I couldn’t go back to sleep. My heart went out to the girl and her mother, because it was an awfully long time to be cramped up when you don’t have the skills to control your emotions. I have to mention that I was very impressed with the way the cabin crew and the rest of the passengers handled the three or four episodes she had over the course of the flight.

It’s incredible how our experience on the same airline can vary so much within a short space of time. On our flight from Australia to Doha a few weeks ago, the plane was crap and we didn’t get so much as a glass of water until a couple of hours into the flight. In contrast, the drinks and snacks on this flight were timely and good. My meal of braised chicken was ok, and Andrew’s slow cooked lamb was seriously delicious. But regardless of how brilliant an airline or flight is, eggs on any plane breakfast is always going to be foul beyond belief! 😞

We normally breeze through Melbourne Airport when transferring to the domestic terminal from international, but there was chaos this time. Everything was great until we got to the baggage carousel. We waited at least an hour for our bags, and then another hour in a shambolic queue through customs. When we walked upstairs to Virgin domestic, we were stunned to see the line for bag drop-off was so long that it almost stretched to the walkway of the international terminal. Apparently a foggy day had caused cancellations and delays, and the whole terminal had been operating on only one runway for most of the day. So naturally we were bearing the brunt of it all at the end of the day.

We lined up for an hour, and then had the bad luck of getting a very rude, nervous and clearly inexperienced check-in staff member. First she told us she couldn’t find us listed on the 9:40pm flight. Thinking we had been bumped off the flight to make way for passengers from another cancelled flight, we started to get very nervous. Luckily we had our paperwork in hardcopy and showed it to her. And she said ‘Oh you are on THAT flight to Hobart’. Errr… how many flights does Virgin schedule to Hobart at 9:40pm? My brain silently muttered a FFS.

She then berated us for taking the luggage tags off our bags (which had been put on at Sofia Airport). I tried to explain that the tags were only to Melbourne and that we needed new tags anyway, but she kept telling us off. Luckily I still had the crumpled tag in my hand and showed her that it clearly stated ‘SOF-MEL’. It took her a few minutes to process this. My brain muttered a few more silent FFSs.

Then she tried to tell us that we didn’t have a luggage allocation for our flight and would have to pay for our two packs. I was trying to stay calm and breezy, but expletives were really starting to fly around my head, and I was afraid that one of them would accidently escape out of my mouth. So in carefully measured language I tried to explain that this was a domestic leg of an international flight booking, thinking that it would be self-explanatory that it never incurs extra luggage fees. No such luck, and she was getting shriller and shriller.

We had nearly resigned ourselves to having to pay the luggage fee just so we could get on that flight and get home, when luckily for us, she stuffed something up and had to call a supervisor over to help. The luggage fee was brought up, and the supervisor informed her that there were no luggage fees ‘because it’s a domestic leg of an international flight’. Thank Christ. By now all the other check-in counters around us had processed about three passengers each. And we were still waiting… Sigh.

After an eternity she printed our bag tags and new boarding passes, and it was at this point that I noticed her hands were shaking a bit and she had a sheen of sweat on her face. Even though she had been quite rude to us, I felt sorry for her that she was rostered on such a chaotic day when she was still getting to know her job.

Very relieved, we walked to the Virgin terminal, bought a Boost juice and slumped into a seat. The boarding gates around us were utterly chaotic, and we realised we weren’t going to be spared the drama either. Our flight time kept changing on the large information board, and every 15 minutes or so our gate changed too.

Every time we shuffled to a new gate, I felt more and more like we were pieces in some giant chess game. And all the while we were surrounded by grumpy and irate passengers who had been trying to catch flights out of Melbourne for many hours. When the last flight to Sydney was cancelled after multiple delays, one guy totally lost his cool and started verbally abusing the young girl who made the announcement. I was very happy to see a couple of burly blokes step in and tell him to pull his head in. 😊

There was a collective sigh of relief when our flight was finally called to board, and then a collective sigh of disappointment when they announced there’d be a further delay as catering hadn’t quite finished. It was an hour flight – I don’t think any of us really cared about catering at that point! We finally boarded, and then sat on the tarmac because the paperwork was delayed. I was so tired I wasn’t quite sure what emotion I was feeling by this stage. We were finally cleared for take-off and we gratefully fell asleep knowing that we were among the lucky ones at Melbourne Airport that night. We landed at a bitterly cold Hobart Airport at 12:15am, and arrived home at 1:30am. Even though our total flying time had only been about 20 hours, our door-to-door travel had taken us nearly 33 hours.

We were so glad to be home, but we had to wait for four hours for our hot water system to fill up for showers. We used the time to unpack, start the first of many loads of laundry, and clean the house. By 4:30am I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, so had a lukewarm shower – I think I shivered myself clean! We set the alarm for 7am and napped for two hours before we had to pick up Jasper, Oliver and Mia from their respective holiday abodes.

It was really nice to wake up in our own bed, and by the end of the day we had well and truly fallen back into the rhythm of our everyday life. That evening we sat in front of the fire with the furry ones and reminisced about the many highlights of our travels – it had been an absolutely fabulous first trip through a small part of Eastern Europe, and we were already looking forward to exploring more of the region.

Well, all good things must come to an end. As usual, we’ll share our thoughts and feelings on Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria in our Epilogue blog.

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11th October 2018

I’ve been on the road myself, so no time for blog reading. But Can’t wait to catch up on yours when I get home! All the best adjusting back to reality. That’s the hardest part
11th October 2018

Re:
Ohhh how exciting - looking forward to reading about your adventures. And yes re-entry into 'normal' life can be difficult, but a great way to avoid post-holiday blues is to plan the next one :)
11th October 2018

Airports
You must've been so tired, because I was tired just reading about the delays. The guy who flipped out is not uncommon in those situations unfortunately. Thanx for sending us the info about the trip, we are mucho excited.
11th October 2018

Re: Airports
Yes we were seriously stuffed, and it was so fabulous to get back home that night. Thanks for reading and commenting :)
12th October 2018

4th flight and not disappointed
I chose this airline for the 4th time mainly because of cost for a full airline service which was $70 cheaper than Air Asia. The only slight problem was that no ice was served with the water or cool drink on my return flight. Apart from that I would recommend flying with this airline.
13th October 2018

Re: 4th flight and not disappointed
Thanks for your comment :)
12th October 2018

I know the feeling...
...had a good 30+ hours travel back and forth to Japan on my last trip. Was out of phase for quite a bit afterwards so I'm impressed that you got back into regular rhythm so quickly. :)
13th October 2018

Re: I know the feeling...
We don't mind those marathon flight days at the start of a trip when excitement levels are high, but we really dislike them at the end of a trip :/ But Australia is a such LOOONG way from most places, so I suppose we've kind of got used to putting up with it... :)
15th October 2018

Travel memories
Sadly, another great trip comes to an end but it allows you to begin to think of the next one! Now-- back to work with you. Ha ha.
16th October 2018

Re: Travel memories
We have been snowed under with work since our return, and haven't had much of a chance to even finish our Epilogue blog, much less do any planning for the next trip. Ah well, it will make our down time at the end of the year even more fun! :)
31st October 2018

Glad you had a safe journey home! I used to enjoy the flight portions of our travels, but rarely do now. It sounds like you both are very good at making the best of things no matter what. Really enjoyed reading your blogs from this trip but I'm very sure Jasper, Oliver and Mia are glad you're home now. I really miss our pets when we're away -- whether they miss us or not, I'm not so sure, LOL!
3rd November 2018

Re:
Thanks for following and commenting Sylvia! We are running waaay behind in posting our last blog for this trip :( I so wish we could take our furry ones with us on our travels... although one of them is so routine driven and set in her ways that I'm sure she would annoy us within minutes :) She would be the equivalent of humans who keep talking about how much better things are at home :D
16th November 2018

Back Home
And loving it eh? Sounds like you had a fun trip, something completely different. Sri Lanka trip seems so long ago, lucky we aren't there now. No Europe trip planned for next year as London based daughter here this Christmas & also next. Off to Fiji next mth just for a week, China next April & Africa next Sept/Oct. Plus moving into apartment as sold house & downsizing. Let us know when you're next swinging through Melbourne. Cheers Paul
18th November 2018

Re: Back Home
Hi Paul! It was a totally unexpected trip and we loved it. We might be in Europe again April next year, but nothing confirmed yet. China sounds exciting... it's one of those trips that we keep putting off until we have a big block of time off. Safe and happy travels to you and Grace :)

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